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SINGAPORE: Eight-year-old Raphael Heng found himself asking all his classmates: How many siblings did they have? That’s how he figured out how unusual his family was – in the entire class, his was the biggest by far.

The middle child of seven children, and the only boy, he said: “I have more sisters than friends. (My classmates) say it’s very unfair because I have more siblings than them.”

Certainly, there’s never a dull moment in the Heng household, where simply keeping track of everyone is a miniature feat. To the extent that the family almost left home once without Raphael, when they were setting off for an outing to the swimming pool.

Harder to manage than the logistics of going out, however, are the family’s expenses. So when Raphael wants his favourite snack at the supermarket, mum Esther Heng, 40, often has to tell him to wait until another time.

“Which one is more worth it?” she asked him, pointing to his snack and a loaf of sliced bread that would feed everyone in the family for the same price of S$2.

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Mum Esther Heng and Raphael, 8. 

Despite the trend here towards having fewer children (or none at all), a few families like the Hengs have gone against the grain. The programme On The Red Dot spent months filming three families with large (by today’s standards) broods, to see what it takes to raise a big family in Singapore today.  (Watch the series here.)

GETTING BY WITH HELP

In the case of the Hengs, it was dad David who did not want to stop at two, which was his wife’s “initial plan”. Now they have seven between the ages of three and 16.

It comes as no surprise when Mr Heng says he loves children. “Many couples would rather not have children, or they have a maximum of two,” said the 42-year-old. “I see children not as a burden but as an inheritance – as a blessing.”

He comes from a small family himself, with just two siblings. 

His wife has a younger sister only, which is why she did not expect to have so many children. A secondary school teacher for a decade, she quit after her fifth child, Arielle, was born in 2011. 

Raising their children on just one breadwinner’s salary, however, has not been easy.

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Their monthly expenses amount to about S$3,000, which means there is nothing left to set aside as savings from Mr Heng’s income as a social service worker.

His parents help out, and the family receives assistance from the Social Service Office with things like the conservancy charges for their five-room Housing and Development Board flat. Their children are under the Education Ministry’s Financial Assistance Scheme, and the family can tap the Community Health Assist Scheme for their medical bills.

Sometimes, Mr Heng also gets a “love offering” from his church friends. “They’d drop by and bless us with groceries or even bless the children with tickets to Universal Studios,” he said. His church has gifted them with staycations and trips to Malaysia.

And “that’s how we’ve been living our lives for the last 11 years”, he said, since he left the army to work in social service.

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Written on the wall of the Hengs’ flat.

To save costs, the younger children must share their toys. And grocery trips are fraught with dilemmas.

“When I buy things from the supermarket, I always have to check the prices,” said Mrs Heng, who looks for offers such as double-purchase discounts.

“Because we’re such a big family, we’ve been living minimally … We don’t get to eat out in restaurants that often. We sometimes do eat out, but it’s just at food courts and the coffee shop.”

AN OVERWORKED MUM

Since March, however, Mrs Heng has been increasingly concerned about the stability of their family income, after her husband abruptly quit his job at a children’s home.

Having coached at-risk youth, Mr Heng decided to start his own company conducting enrichment workshops for such youth and their guardians.

While waiting for his enterprise to take off, he has been working part-time on projects for children with special needs, and freelancing for another company to bring children to heritage sites. His current earnings fall short by about S$500 a month.

Despite this financial uncertainty, he felt it was the right to move shift gears. In the last two years especially, because of shift work that included nights and weekends, he’d not been spending enough time with his family.

I was doing so much for these other children (at work), but my own children didn’t even see me at home. I was an absent daddy.

“That, I think, in a way has caused some strains in the family,” he said.

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David Heng putting his youngest, Isabella, 3, to sleep.

Mrs Heng’s entire day revolves around her supersized family. “I cook, I wash, I fold the laundry,” she said, her most precious ally the washing machine. 

“I can do without the TV, but … if the washing machine breaks down, that would mean I have to hand-wash five to six people’s clothes every day. It’s no joke.”

She had a domestic helper once, but the family could ill-afford one after she became a stay-at-home mum. And Mrs Heng feels she has even less personal time now, than when she was  working as a teacher.

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Tutoring the children.

“When I’m overwhelmed with their schoolwork deadlines and then a lot of housework, or if one of them is ill, and I’ve to handle so many things … I do think about whether I’m raising them all by myself,” she said.

There are times I just want to have a meal by myself, without the children calling me every 30 seconds: ‘Mummy, I need a bowl; Mummy, I need this; Mummy, my drink spilled; I need chopsticks.’

She also wakes the children up, prepares their breakfast, walks them to school and tutors them. Her day starts at 6am and ends at 11pm.

Though her youngest, Isabella, stays with her in-laws on weekdays, Mrs Heng is still too swamped to cook on most days, so the family uses a tingkat meal delivery service.

WATCH: Life in the Heng household (4:58)

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